Jun 27, 2013

Unagi (freshwater eel) is endangered! Eat it now!!

I wrote about a conger eel bowl (穴子丼 anago-don) some time ago. As I already mentioned there, there is another snake-like animal that looks very similar to anago. Yes, it is うなぎ (unagi, freshwater Japanese eel)! Look at the photo below that I found in the website of Shzuoka Unagi Fishermen's Cooperative.

If you have ophidiophobia, this photo might make you feel like vomiting. Well, I admit that these slimy creatures look grotesque, but they taste very good once cooked. Rich in vitamin A and E and omega-3 fatty acids, unagi has been traditionally eaten especially in summer when people feel tired and need to gain stamina.

Unlike other types of fish, unagi is very hard to prepare at home. It is almost impossible for non-professionals to split down the back or the belly (depending where you live) of this long slimy fish, which requires special techniques. So we usually eat unagi at restaurants or buy already-cooked one at fish shops or supermarkets.

This is うな重 (unaju) that I had recently, for the first time in a year. The one served in lacquered bento-box like this is called unaju, and the one served in a bowl is called うな丼 (unadon), both of which are basically the same -- broiled unagi fillets on top of steamed white rice.

Eels are most commonly eaten in 蒲焼(kabayaki,) style like this photo, where the fish is grilled or broiled after being dipping in soy-based sweet sauce called たれ(tare). When it is cooked without this sauce, it is called 白焼き(shirayaki), which is also very delicious

I really love unagi, but unfortunately I have not had it much since last year, because the price of unagi is now rocket high. Catches of Japanese eel fry (しらすうなぎ shirasu unagi) have been increasingly poor these last couple of years due to overfishing and climate changes. Last year the Ministry of Environment designated Japanese eel as the species at the risk of extinction. If this situation continues, we will not be able to eat eels in the near future. 

It is known that Japanese eels spawn in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Guam, and the young eels migrate to Japanese rivers. Unagi fishermen catch them at the mouth of the rivers and make them grow big at the farms. The problem is, hatching of fertilized eggs at laboratories is quite difficult, and growing the newly-hatched eels bigger is even more difficult and pricey.  

Eels are not the type of fish we eat every week, yet I'd like to have it at least once a year. I would be really sad if eel fishing is completely banned. If you have a chance to come to Japan soon, try to eat eels before they become extinct!

Today's useful expressions: 今日のお昼は、うなぎを食べようよ。Kyo no ohiru wa unagi o tabeyoyo. = Why don't we eat eels for today's lunch?

Jun 20, 2013

Try "Japanese" hamburger steak at restaurnats or at home!

One of the favorite foods for Japanese children is definitely ハンバーグ (pronounced hambagu), usually translated as hamburger steak, but "our" hamburger steak is a bit different from "Western" counterparts. Ours is normally thicker and softer than an ordinary hamburger patty or a steak haché.

Some people say Japanese hambagu is similar to Salisbury steak, which I've never had. The ingredients are pretty much the same -- ground meat (often the blend of beef and pork), extender such as bread crumbs and flour, vegetables (most typically onions), eggs as binder, seasonings, and sometimes some liquid such as water, milk and cream -- but according to the Wikipedia, the taste is quite different because we have "Japanized" this dish of western origin,  like many other 洋食 (Yoshoku, or Japanese-style Western food).

The photo below is the hambagu I recently had for lunch at a restaurant called Bonbori in Shibuya, Tokyo. Doesn't it look delicious?? Yes, it was super yummy! This is probably one of the best hamburger steaks I have ever had. Their hambagu lunch set, including a small bowl of salad, steamed white rice (you can ask as much as you want) and a mini dessert, is 1,000 yen, and  I asked for a slice of cheddar cheese on top of my hambagu for extra 100 yen.

The sizzling hamburger steak using 100% beef (whether they use only beef or the blend with pork for their hambgabu depends on the place) is served on the lava stone grill plate, which is believed to make the meat soft due to the effects of extreme infrared radiation. Personally I don't trust this infrared radiation logic, but I have to admit that the meat was very tender and juicy but not greasy at all. My stomach often feels heavy after eating meat dishes, but I had no problem this time.

This is how it looks inside. Sorry it is not a very nice photo. I had almost finished when I took this photo.

My husband ordered a hamburger steak with a grilled chicken (plus 200 yen). He says the chicken was nothing special. I don't blame them because they clearly said their recommendation for lunch was hambagu, not chicken. 

The restaurant is a little hard to find. Located in the basement of a building, it is dark inside and looks like a bar rather than a grill restaurant. Don't miss the small entrance (see the photo below)!  

Restaurant info:
Address:  Hiroi Bldg. B1, 1-21-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo
Near the Nanpeidai Crossing, about 6 minutes from Shibuya station 
Tel: 03-5784-1417
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch, 5-11:30 p.m. for dinner.
They have English menu as well. 

By the way, according to the survey conducted last year by a web magazine, 5 family restaurants (famiresu for short) chains popular for their hambagu are: 

No.1 Bikkuri Donky (びっくりドンキー)
No. 2 Gusto (ガスト)
No. 3. Big Boy (ビッグボーイ)
No. 4  Coco's (ココス)
No. 5 Royal Host (ロイヤルホスト)

I don't know if these diners have English menus. I doubt it, but you can ask them 英語のメニューはありますか(Eigo no menu wa arimasuka? = Do you have an English menu?), and even if they have no English menus, don't worry, their menus are full of photos. 

Ah, one more thing. You can easily make Japanese hamburger steak at home. It is very simple and tasty. If interested, check a Youtube video here. A Japanese lady (it is not me!) is showing how to make it. I don't understand the presence of a dog, but her recipe is very basic and looks delicious. Instead of the gravy sauce shown in this video, you can pour the mixture of Worcester sauce and ketchup over the hamburger, like many Japanese do at home. (I don't know why but this sauce is rarely seen at restaurants. Maybe is it too homely??)

Jun 13, 2013

Flower viewing in the rainy seasons (Tokyo area)

To be honest, when I was younger I was not interested in viewing flowers at all. I didn't understand why older people traveled far only to see flowers, but I learned to appreciate the ephemeral beauty of flowers before I knew it. Very strange. I'm wondering if the same thing happens to any aging people?

Anyway, last weekend my husband and I went to 生田緑地、or Ikuta Park, Kawasaki City, about 30-minutes by car from my place, to see see あじさい (ajisai, hydrangeas).

Although we can usually enjoy hydrangeas about this time of the year -- in June and July, they haven't been in full bloom yet, maybe because we haven't had much rain this year despite that the rainy season started very early.

In Kanto area including Tokyo, it has been raining these last few days due to the typhoon that turned into a low atmospheric pressure, but in other areas we have already started worrying about possible water shortage.

Very typical type of hydrangea. When the soil is alkaline, the hydrangea flowers become blue like this one.


Different type hydrangea. I don't know the exact name. 

Seems like we'll need to wait a little longer to see this small hill covered with hydrangeas.

Instead, 菖蒲 (しょうぶ、shobu), or blue flag iris, were at their best in the same park.

Aren't they beautiful? Shobu flowers can be enjoyed till the end of this month. 

This lage park, having an art museum, a planetarium and old folk houses moved from other locations, is definitely worth visiting, but there's one problem. It is not very easily accessible if you don't have a car. For information, click here (English). 

If you are looking for somewhere easier to go, how about these following two places? 

堀切菖蒲園 Horikiri Shobu-en: 2-19-1 Horkiri, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo. Open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. (till 6 p.m. in June). Admission free. 15-min. walk from Horkiri Shobu-en station on the Keisei Line. 

明治神宮御苑 Meiji Jingu Gyoen, a part of the famous Meiji Shrine in Harajuku.  1-1 Yoyogi Kamizono-cho, Shibuya-ku Tokyo. Very close to JR Harajuku Station. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

To see hydrangea, I recommend: 

白山神社 Hakusan Shrine, Bunkyo Ward: 5-31-26 Hakusan, Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, 3-min. walk from Hakusan station on the subway Mita Line, or 5-min. walk from Honkomagome station on the subway Nanboku Line.

飛鳥山公園 Asukayama Park, 1-1-3 Oji Honcho,Kita-ku Tokyo, 1-min. walk from Oji station on the JR Keihin Tohoku Line.

高幡不動尊 Takahata Fudoson shrine, 733 Takahata, Hino City, Tokyo, 5-min. walk from Takahata Fudo station on the Keio Line.

Today's useful expression: あじさいが とても きれいです。 Ajisai ga totemo kirei desu. These hydrangeas are very pretty. 

Jun 11, 2013

My favorite desserts available at コンビニ(convenience stores) in Japan

A convenience store is a small store that sells various everyday items, ranging from foods to toiletries. I'm sure similar stores are everywhere in the world, but for many Japanese, コンビニ, pronounced konbini, is not a substitute for a supermarket.

First of all, konbini is truly convenient. No exaggeration. Other than getting foods and drinks, we can pay utility bills, withdraw money from ATMs, make photocopies, send fax, receive concert tickets, ship parcels, etc. at konbini of all over the country.

Konbini is sometimes more useful than big supermarkets dealing with a great variety of items, especially when you buy only a few things, such as onigiri (rice balls) and a bottled tea. As people usually buy only a few things at a time, you don't have to wait long in a queue for payment.

Above all, we love  convenience stores. Many of us feel like stopping at a konbini for no special reasons on the way back home. We go inside and browse magazines for a while and get some drinks, desserts or hot snacks before leaving. This little ritual helps us relax and change our mood.

They constantly change the selection of goods, and develop their "original" products, so that we can find something new whenever we drop in. It is so much fun!

I often go to a 7-Eleven to buy desserts, not because I prefer this chain to others, but because it is the closest to my place. The photos below are the ones I get pretty often these days.

This is the a cake roll called "Shifuku no Roll Cake (Ultimate Roll Cake)" using super-soft whipped fresh cream from Hokkaido. 150 yen.  

A cream puff filled with very smooth custard. 105 yen. Very reasonable price and always delicious! One thing you should remember: a cream puff is called シュークリーム (shu kurimu) in Japanese, the same pronunciation as shoe cream. Shu kurimu comes from a French word chou à la crème. When you are looking for "shoe cream,"  you have to ask "くつずみ は どこですか?(Kutsuzumi wa doko desuka?)," not "Shu kurumu wa doko desuka"?

This is my favorite Creamy Mont Blanc topped with pureed Italian chestnut. Very tasty. 250 yen.
If you remove the plastic dome lid... 

See? Isn't it beautiful? Very creamy whipped cream inside. You can buy small happiness for only 250 yen! 

At 7-Eleven, new items developed by the special teams of the headquarters come out every Tuesday. They include onigiri (rice ball)  with new fillings, bento boxes, sandwiches, desserts, bread and more.

If you have a chance to visit Japan, try to check out Japanese konbini! 

Jun 6, 2013

Discover the origin of Japanese manga at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art

There are mainly two kinds of people interested in Japan: those who love traditional culture and those attracted to the pop culture, like anime and manga. 

An art exhibition that may appeal to both of them is currently taking place at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Harajuku. Titled"北斎と暁斎 奇想の漫画 -- Katsushika Hokusai and Kawanabe Kyosai: Fantastic Comics," it features two great masters of ukiyoe (woodblock prints) 葛飾北斎(Katsushika Hokusai 1760-1849) and 河鍋暁斎 (Kawanabe Kyosai 1831-1889). 

This is the upper-half of the brochure of the exhibition, showing all Hokudai's works. Among the people who are making strange facial expressions or doing some funny things, there are two monsters -- a woman with a snake-like long neck and a "kappa" (river child) with reptile-like skin and a turtle shell on the back (did you find it?)

This is the lower half, showing personified frogs and dancing skeletons by Kyosai, who is considered as a successor to Hokusai.

Even if you don't know the name of Hokusai, I guess many of you have probably seen his famous Mount Fuji series at least once.  (photos below) 

浮世絵 (ukiyoe) prints were produced in the Edo Period and the early Meiji Era (17th-20th century),  and made a great impact on the Western art world in the 19th century as well. It is often regarded as fine art, but that is wrong. Ukiyoe are mass-produced prints created for the general public.   

浮世(ukiyo) of ukiyoe literally means "floating word", which indicates "real life,"  and anything became the subjects of ukiye, including beautiful girls in town, popular geisha, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, events, festivals, landscapes,  murder cases, ghosts, animals, and of course sex (this specific genre is called makura-e, or pillow pictures) . 

Hokusai was a very energetic man who tried to draw and paint almost all the things he had seen. He published a collection of sketches of various subjects titled "Hokusai Manga" in 1814. Back then the word "manga" referred to "sketches drawn aimlessly",  not to story-telling comics.  

In this exhibition we can see many illustrations from Hokusai Manga. The photos below are actually the postcards I bought at the museum, but good examples of the exhibition.  

They are marine creatures. The big black one is a whale, and the white one is a shark. The upper right black creature looks like a dolphin but I'm not sure.

This half-naked chubby guy washes his kimono, hangs it to dry, and takies a quick bath in a washtub, etc. Hokusai tried to depict various body motions seen in everyday life.

The same (?)  Mr. Chubby and a woman (I don't know their relationship) are taking a nap, reading a book and a letter. Kind of cute...

The most hilarious work displayed in the exhibition for me was Kyosai's (not Hokusai) "放屁合戦 Hohi Gassen" meaning "Fart Battle"!!!  I bursted into laughter when I saw it. It is vulgar, stupid and funny. I'm sorry I could not find the image of exactly the same work anywhere.

While surfing on the internet, however, I found out the existence of an old scroll with the same subject, titled "Fart Battle Scroll" housed at the library of Waseda University. I don't think it is Kyosai's but If you would like to see what it is like, click here. Hope you'll like it.

The exhibition is until June 26.

Museum information

浮世絵 太田記念美術館 Ukiyoe Ota Kinen Bijutsukan
Ukiyoe Ota Memorial Museum of Art

address: 1-10-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
tel: 03-5777-8600
Located at 5-minute walk from JR Harajuku Station, 3-minute walk from Meiji Jingumae on the subway Chiyoda and Fukutoshin Lines.

Open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. during the exhibition period
Admission: 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for high school and university students, free for junior high school students and below. 

For farther information, check the English website here.

Today's useful expression
おとな ふたり おねがいします。 Otona futari onegaishimasu. Two adults, please.

Jun 4, 2013

Parent-and-child bowl?! What is it??

The other day I wrote about "anago-don" or conger eel bowl, but I forgot to explain to you what "don" means.

Well, "don" or "donburi"is a large bowl of steamed white rice. If tempura is put on top of rice, for example, the dish is normally called tempura-don, or ten-don for short.  If it is topped with cooked beef (=gyu), it will become gyu-don.

Then what is 親子丼 (おやこどん、oyako-don), or "parent-and-child bowl"? Can you guess?

To know the answer, look at the photo below. Yes, it is a chicken-and-egg bowl. Needless to say, おや(oya, parent) is chicken and (ko, child) is an egg.

When I was a child, I didn't like this name very much, because it always made me imagine a mother and her children being cooked in the same pan and served in the same bowl.  How cruel! When chicken is replaced with other meat such as beef and pork, it is called 他人丼 (たにんどん tanin-don, strangers bowl), which sounds even sadder than oyako-don.

Oyako-don is one of the typical dishes at home. It is easy to make: you cut chicken into dice and slice onion, cook them in  soy-flavored dashi (fish stock) , add a beaten egg just before turning off the heat to prevent overcooking the egg.  Then you put it on top of steamed white rice and garnish it with mitsuba, a herb similar to parsley, if you want.

At restaurants, serving it with an egg yolk is becoming a trend, because we love the creamy texture of a raw egg, believe it or not.

As I mentioned before in the story about sukiyaki, you don't have to worry about food poisoning caused by raw eggs in Japan. The simplest way of enjoying raw eggs is "tamago-kake-gohan," or hot steamed white rice with a beaten egg and soy sauce poured over it. If you stay at a Japanese traditional inn, you will probably be served for breakfast. I know it is not appreciated very much by foreigners, but try it even once! Whether you like it or not... only God knows.

I had the oyako-don in the photo above for lunch at  鶏味座(とりみくら、Torimikura), a yakitori (skewered chicken) place located in trendy Aoyama area in Tokyo. They don't serve ordinary skewered chicken during the lunch time, but they have yakitori-don (photo below).

Four type of yakitori and an onsen tamago (lit. hot spring egg), or a special boiled egg with custard-like unique texture, are put on the rice. Skewers used to grill the meat have been removed. The green stuff on the chicken is wasabi.

This is how the restaurant looks from outside. It looks like an old Japanese house in the countryside, but actually located at the very center of Tokyo. Isn't it nice?

Unfortunately, the service is not super friendly. When my husband asked them to change the order, the guy who took the order looked very reluctant and even a bit angry with us, although he agreed to change finally.  If they had already started the preparation, he could have told us so nicely. We don't get mad about such a trifle thing.

But except this small incident, I was pretty much happy with the lunch at Torimikura. My delicious oyako-don was only  \1,000 including miso soup and some pickles, and the yakitori-don that my husband had was \1,300 because he added grilled liver. Pretty reasonable for the quality.

Restaurant information:

鶏味座 (torimikura)
3-12-4 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

4-minute walk from Omotesando Station

tel: 5770-5039

Mon. thru. Fri.: Open 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sat., Sun. & holidays, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m.

Budget: for lunch \1,000-2,000; for dinner \5,000  per person.